It is 1852, and in Sweden’s far north, deep in the Arctic Circle, charismatic preacher and Revivalist Lars Levi Læstadius impassions a poverty-stricken congregation with visions of salvation. But local leaders have reason to resist a shift to temperance over alcohol.
Jussi, the young Sami boy Læstadius has rescued from destitution and abuse, becomes the preacher’s faithful disciple on long botanical treks to explore the flora and fauna. Læstadius also teaches him to read and write – and to love and fear God.
When a milkmaid goes missing deep in the forest, the locals suspect a predatory bear is at large. A second girl is attacked, and the sheriff is quick to offer a reward for the bear’s capture. Using early forensics and daguerreotype, Læstadius and Jussi find clues that point to a far worse killer on the loose, even as they are unaware of the evil closing in around them.
Mikael Niemi’s historical crime novel To Cook a Bear, in superb flowing translation from Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner, is a masterpiece, and an absolute literary revelation for me. The author grew up near the old parsonage in Pajala where the real-life leader and keen botanist lived with wife Brita Kajsa and his family until his death in 1861. The inspiration and the proximity to the location so significant at the time, sparked Niemi’s interest and propelled his imagination to create a gripping semi-detective tale of communities turning inwards when panic and the incomprehensible happen. The meandering path from superstition and fear can quickly turn into injustice and violence, and nothing can prevent unfair treatment of those who are different or not belonging. The book becomes more than just a fascinating engaging and breath-taking search for the killer where Læstadius follows logic, calm reasoning and all scientific methods available to him while the those in power become his enemies. The main players: foundry owner, merchant, bailiff and sheriff want quick results (yes, let’s catch and kill the beastly animal!) and no ‘meddling’ in their business. To Cook a Bear takes various religious thoughts and dismantles them into both lyrical and brutal philosophical journey.
The story is set in a distant location at Kengis in the parish of Pajala in northern Sweden, close to the Finnish border, and we follow Jussi, a wanderer, observing life from the sidelines and being an outcast narrator: Although he wants to fit in, he is fully aware of his strange fate: ‘Clothes on my back, knife in my belt, fire striker and cup, horn spoon, pouch of salt.’ His life is harsh, yet thanks to the pastor he has a chance to encounter gentler facets of nature and humanity and to learn to read and write, while trying to understand God. Faced with the difficult question ‘What are you doing to combat the world’s evil’ he’s not quite ready to come up with ideas but the process of thinking and experiencing knowledge helps him to feel some hope. Damaged by the abuse, hunger and poverty, he’s convinced (wrongly) of own unlovable character: ‘No-one looking at me breaks into a smile or feels the easy joy I have seen in others. No woman meets my eye with a grin but instead she will tense and turn away.’ Yet he is in love and prepared to sacrifice everything to help a woman of his dreams, of his physical and emotional desires which are so complex they might be derived straight from Satan. That’s the only possible interpretation… Given the chance Jussi would have become a wise educated man; alas, his story was not so happy.
‘The greatest sin people can commit is not to love their children.’
Together with the pastor he glimpsed into the possibility of improving lives of the local neighbourhoods and people whose existence was particularly tough: Sami people, Swedes and Finns, and occasional Norwegians who had ventured into the area. Jussi discovered the joy of reading, of creating sounds in own head and trying to speak eloquently: ‘If you owned books, you would never be alone.’ And the religious revival seemed like an opportunity: ‘It is an inner revolution. Instead of overthrowing those in power, the battle is within the inner tyrants. With self-righteousness, arrogance, pride, with desire for ostentation and carnal pleasures. Only when inner demons are brought down and slain, can society undergo a lasting change.’
And I will leave you with the quote that carries simplicity taken from the close bond with the nature, into the universal contemporary themes:
‘Most people behave like reindeer. They want to walk with others, move forward in a herd. If a female grunts, the others will start to grunt too. If a male gives out a warning signal, they all run, even if they haven’t seen the danger themselves. The reindeer navigates by fear, its enemies are the wolverine, the wolf, the bear and the lynx. A human being is also afraid, created that way by our Lord. Luther’s call was to love and fear God. But we love and fear each other with the same intensity. And most of all we fear losing one another. Being alone, being separated from the protection of our herd.’
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